A Brief Book Summary from Books At a Glance
About the Author
David Peterson was senior research fellow and lecturer in New Testament at Moore Theological College, Sydney, where he still teaches part time. He served as principal of Oak Hill College, London, from 1996 to 2007. His books include Engaging with God, Possessed by God (both IVP) and Hebrews and Perfection (Cambridge University Press).
David Peterson contends that the doctrine of sanctification is misunderstood and often ignored today both in the academy and the local church. Current books written on sanctification often lack depth, and an absence of teaching on sanctification in the church has lead to widespread superficiality and compromise. J.I. Packer notices the same phenomenon, and his observations show that further work is needed on the subject—work that is intensely biblical, attuned to the historical debates, and conducive to a deeper understanding. The biggest developments need to be made in biblical interpretation. Current discussions often employ various passages selectively, while other verses are altogether ignored. Prominent systematic theologies frequently conflate other doctrines with sanctification, adding to the confusion. Misunderstanding has often produced controversy, and Christians wearied from debate on this issue have been tempted to give up the terminology of sanctification. But to lose this concept is to lose something vital to Scripture. The problem stems from the widespread assumption that sanctification is primarily progressive and not definitive. Though progressive sanctification is taught in Scripture, the key to understanding and applying the biblical teaching on sanctification lies in grasping first and foremost its definitive nature.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: The biblical starting point
Chapter 2: Sanctified in Christ
Chapter 3: Sanctified by word and Spirit
Chapter 4: Pursuing holiness
Chapter 5: Living between the cross and the resurrection
Chapter 6: Transformation, renewal and growth
Appendix A: The meaning of hagiasmos in the New Testament
Appendix B: Sanctification and God’s law
Chapter 1: The biblical starting point
Believers today might be surprised to find out that through much of church history, sanctification has been a controversial doctrine. While the debate has been contentious at times, most have settled on the understanding that sanctification is “a process of moral and spiritual transformation, flowing from justification by faith.” Progress in holiness is seen as coming from a combination of the work of the Spirit and human effort, with different traditions giving emphasis to one or the other. Others, however, have advocated a need for a “crisis experience” in order to make substantial progress in sanctification. The frequent lack of agreement on this doctrine comes primarily from methodological flaws. The precise language of holiness used in the New Testament is often glossed over in an attempt to fit passages into a theological scheme, and the witness of the Old Testament—of major importance to the NT authors—is dealt with inadequately. The problems related to this doctrine call for a fresh look at the biblical witness.
The starting point for this doctrine must be the character of God. God’s holiness is so fundamental to his nature that Amos can use the phrase “God has sworn by his holiness” (Amos 4:2) as a synonym for “God has sworn by himself” (Amos 6:8). God’s holiness is connected to his majesty and transcendence; as the one true God he is high and lifted up—incomparably holy. It is particularly important to understand God’s holiness as moral perfection. His ethical purity is unrivaled, and his justice requires him to act in holy anger against wickedness and evil. Yet he is also a compassionate God; his holy love will not allow him to completely destroy his people. In redemptive history, God’s holiness is manifested both in salvation and judgment. This often creates a paradox, because “God acts to judge everything that unholy and yet provides a way of cleansing and sanctification for sinners.” This theme is prominent in Isaiah, and the text points to a resolution sometime in the future with the rise of a “holy seed” (Isa. 6:13).
God’s holiness makes him unique, but it is also a quality he shares with his people. That God has taken the initiative to do so must be central to our thinking—it is God who sanctifies. The nation of Israel represents this truth. God redeemed Israel out of Egypt to be his treasured possession; they were uniquely related to him so that they might know his holiness and display it to the nations. However, even this holy nation was called on to actively “be holy” (Lev. 11:44). The elaborate requirements of the Sinai covenant were meant to sustain holiness, so that Israel might not profane God’s name. Different sins are emphasized throughout the Old Testament, but a common thread remains: as God’s holy people, Israel is called to forsake all idolatry and sin. The dynamic of God’s initiative in sanctification and Israel’s faithful response in holy living is fundamental to the Old Testament. Of particular importance in this regard was observing the Sabbath, because by setting aside (sanctifying) the Sabbath Israel acknowledged that it was God who sanctified them (Ex. 31:13). Sabbath keeping embodied the truth about God and Israel’s relationship. When Moses and Aaron fail to sanctify God’s name at Meribah, God punishes them, demonstrating that when Israel rebels, God must act to “show[ed] himself holy” (Num. 20:13). This theme is amplified in Ezekiel, where God’s people have been exiled for profaning his name among the nations. Chapters 36-37 show that God will once again act to sanctify his people, so that he might “manifest his holiness in Israel for the blessing of the nations.”
Since God is transcendent and uniquely holy, he alone is the initiator and source of sanctification. Holiness is first and foremost imparted, not gained by human effort. Yet it is given by God through redemption and covenant, meaning it carries with it important obligations. The cultic aspect of Israel’s worship and the moral requirements of the law are woven together to help them recognize God’s unique holiness and the faithful response required.
The New Testament authors adopt this outlook in four important ways:
- Just as Israel was sanctified definitively by redemption from Egypt, so Christians are sanctified definitively by redemption ‘in Christ.’ The New Testament often means ‘once-for-all’ when referring to sanctification.
- God’s holy presence and provision through the sacrificial system is what sustained Israel as a holy nation. Likewise, the presence of the Holy Spirit, whose ministry consists in enabling and maintaining belief in the gospel, sustains the believer in holiness.
- Like Israel, Christians are called to respond appropriately in every sphere of life to their unique relationship with God.
- The paradigm of being separate from the nations in order to be devoted to God is carried into the New Testament. When this happens, believers are transformed, and God’s holiness is displayed to the nations.
Chapter 2: Sanctified in Christ
Though sanctification is not a prominent theme in Jesus’ teaching, there are echoes of it throughout the gospels, perhaps most significantly in the Gospel of John. In John 10, Jesus says the Father has sanctified him and sent him into the world (Jn. 10:36), language meant to evoke imagery of the temple. Jesus is alluding to the fact that his ministry will both fulfill and surpass that of the temple in Jerusalem. His death and resurrection is the climax of his ministry, revealing that he was sanctified in order to be a perfect sacrifice in the place of sinners. This sacrifice makes possible a new and special relationship between God and his people, and it is in this important context that the believer’s sanctification must be positioned.
John 17 speaks directly to the sanctification of the disciples. Jesus’ prayer in John 17 is not that the disciples would be removed from the world, but that they might maintain unity in a hostile environment. He desires that they “be kept from being overwhelmed by the world and its values, so that they might be devoted or ‘sanctified’ to the Father and his values (17:17-19).” There is a strong missional element in John 17: unity among disciples is a unique display of God’s love that leads to a powerful witness to the world. Also significant is John 17:19, where Jesus says, “for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth.” This shows. . .[...]
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Possessed by God: A New Testament Theology of Sanctification and Holiness